Don McCullin photo show looks at six decades covering conflict

LONDON (AP) – Don McCullin’s most famous photographs burn with the physical and emotional brutality of conflict: a shell-shocked American soldier in Vietnam, a starving woman and child in Nigeria’s breakaway Biafra.

But don’t call him a war photographer.

“I hate that,” the 83-year-old British photojournalist said on Monday, sitting in an exhibition of six decades’ worth of his images of damaged people, ravaged landscapes and scarred cities. “I’ve willfully changed direction because I didn’t want to get stuck in the war direction, people calling me a war photographer.”

The retrospective of more than 250 photographs opened yesterday and continues to May 6 at Tate Britain, the country’s foremost gallery of UK art. But don’t call McCullin an artist.

“I hate that, too,” said McCullin, who is charming with a combative undercurrent. “I’m not an artist. I’m a photographer, and that’s all there is to it.”

Veteran British conflict photographer Don McCullin
A visitor takes a photo of a 1968 photograph of a starving albino boy in Biafra by veteran British conflict photographer Don McCullin at the launch of his retrospective exhibition at the Tate Britain gallery in London. – PHOTOS: AP

McCullin’s career began almost by chance, with a photo of young gang members he knew from Finsbury Park, the tough London neighbourhood where he grew up. A shot of the group — ‘The Guv’nors’ — standing in a bombed-out building, had a powerful combination of squalor and swagger that caught the attention of British newspapers.

“Once that was published in The Observer, I could see a life for myself rather than hanging around with those boys,” McCullin said. “So I made this journey into photography, and it’s been extraordinary, really.”

McCullin plunged into many of the 20th Century’s conflict zones: Cold War Berlin, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Congo, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Iraq.

His images, always in black and white, powerfully capture the emotions of war — the raw grief of a woman in Cyprus who has just learned of her husband’s death; the devastation of an American GI; the exhilaration of youth in Northern Ireland throwing stones at soldiers.

His lens looked just as unflinchingly at his home country. From the 1950s onwards, McCullin captured a side of Britain scarred by poverty, violence and decay. It’s tough stuff, though his images of holidaymakers at the seaside have a defiant cheerfulness, and there is great dignity in his close-up portraits of careworn and homeless inhabitants of Britain’s cities.

McCullin survived physical danger and brushes with death. A glass case at the exhibition holds a Nikon camera that stopped a bullet hitting him in Cambodia.

He didn’t escape an emotional toll, and in recent years has turned to quieter subjects — “to eradicate the past,” McCullin said in an exhibition note. Recent works include photos of the strange, watery landscape of the Somerset Levels near his home in southwest England.

McCullin acknowledges that even these rural landscapes end up “looking like the First World War”, shot on black and white film — never digitally — and printed by McCullin with his characteristic glowering intensity.